Tips for Choosing and Planting Trees and Shrubs

shrubs growing in front of a line of trees
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Tips for Choosing and Planting Trees and Shrubs

Planting Trees and Shrubs

Long-lived and beautiful, shrubs and trees give your landscape its "bones," the height, texture, color, and often fragrance it needs on a grand scale. Follow the simple guidelines below to plant new shrubs and trees in your garden for decades of beauty!

Choose the Right Site

Always match the plant to the garden, instead of the other way around. Pay close attention to the light and soil requirements of your plant when choosing a location. Your shrub and tree needs to thrive in this spot over many, many years, so you want to make sure you've chosen just the right location.

Take the time to examine your planting site carefully before choosing a shrub or tree. For instance, a site that is sunny and open in winter may be plunged into deep shade when deciduous trees overhead leaf out in spring and summer. An out-of-the-way corner of the garden may really benefit from a blooming shrub, but if the hose doesn't reach that far, be sure to choose a variety that can stand a lot of drought, or that quickly grows a deep taproot to find its own source of water underground.

When adding shrubs or small trees to existing beds and borders, check the height and width of suitable varieties carefully, and try to find out the growth pattern of the roots (wide and shallow? down and deep?). Also consider the roots of the surrounding plants. Some, such as Rhododendrons, have very shallow root systems that resent being disturbed by digging, even when there seems to be plenty of soil available for a new neighbor. Others, such as Nandina, quickly grow a vast network of thick roots that can be very difficult to fight through. Watch your new shrub or tree very carefully the first season to see if it's "fitting in" well with the local residents, and be prepared to move it next season if the arrangement doesn't seem to be working out.

Choose the Right Plant

Once you know the requirements of your garden for hardiness, drainage, light, and water, is, "What's the purpose of this plant in my landscape?" Here are some possibilities:

Windbreak/Barrier/Privacy Screen

If your goal is dense vertical coverage, you might look at shrubs and trees that are evergreen, quick-growing, and economical (since you will probably be buying more than one). Good candidates include:

  • Thuja (Western Red Cedar)
  • Picea (Spruce)
  • Fargesia, Pleioblastus, Bambusa, Phyllostachus, etc. (Bamboo)
  • Rhododendron/Azalea
  • Cupressus (Cypress)
  • Illicium (Mexican Anise)


If you would like to create a low "living wall" of color along the driveway, around the house, separating various areas of the garden, or outlining the property line, look for shrubs and trees that are evergreen, economical (you will need several), tolerant of some traffic, and low maintenance. Good candidates include:

  • Juniperus (Juniper)
  • Hydrangea
  • Kalmia (Mountain Laurel)
  • Rhamnus (Tallhedge)
  • Pieris
  • Rhododendron/Azalea
  • Sarcococca (Sweet Box)
  • Daphne
  • Rose ("Shrub" or "Landscape" types)

Ground Cover

Sprawling shrubs make superb ground cover that you seldom have to replace. If you have a steep slope, if soil erosion is a problem in your garden, or if you simply want a long-lived and easy way to blanket the soil, look for trees and shrubs that offer horizontal rather than vertical growth, a low and dense habit, low maintenance, a long life, and good resistance to environmental stresses such as heat, humidity, foot traffic, drought, etc. Good candidates include:

  • Cotoneaster
  • Gardenia
  • Rosemarinus (Rosemary)
  • Stephanandra
  • Sarcococca (Sweet Box)
  • Leucothoe
  • Juniperus (Juniperus)
  • Forsythia
  • Daphne

Landmark or Focal Point

When you need a bold accent or injection of color, place a single tree or shrub in an attention-getting spot and design the garden around it. Look for plants with an unusual habit (weeping, standard- or tree-form, columnar, etc.), a new bloom color or look (such as picoteed flowers, double blooms, or variegated foliage), and multi-season interest (such as spring blooms, summer berries, and fall foliage changes). Good candidates include:

  • Acer palmatum (Japanese Maple)
  • Rose (standard- or tre--form)
  • Prunus subhirtella pendula (Weeping Cherry)
  • Magnolia (columnar or dwarf forms)
  • Cornus (Dogwood)
  • Euonymus (Burning Bush)
  • Berberis (Barberry, columnar form)
  • Pyracantha
  • Syringa (Lilac)